Stalking has been called the "Crime of the Nineties."
California was the first state to create the crime of stalking. Its law was passed in 1990, shortly after a deranged fan murdered actress Rebecca Shaeffer, the star of the television series "My Sister Sam." The fan was a stranger to the actress. He had been following her during the weeks leading up to her death, eventually knocking on her door and killing her when she came to the door.
Missouri enacted its stalking law in 1993.
In the past, the legal system could do very little to help someone who was simply being followed by another person. Tragically, law enforcement usually was forced to wait until some sort of assault actually occurred before the defendant could be charged with anything.
Times have changed. The stalking crime can now help give some protection to victims earlier in the process.
Stalkers generally fall into one of two categories.
The Psychopathic Personality Stalker is usually a former boyfriend or husband who has lost control over his victim, and intends to harm her. This stalker often insists on male dominance and frequently exhibits a macho image to hide feelings of inferiority. His idea that if he "can’t have the victim then no one can" often makes him a significant danger to the victim, even if she and others don’t yet realize it.
The Psychotic Personality Stalker is a person who has become obsessed with an unobtainable love object such as a movie star. This type of stalker is a stranger to the victim. The killer of Rebecca Schaeffer was this sort of stalker, as was John Hinkley, Jr., who shot President Ronald Regan with the hope of attracting the attention of actress Jodie Foster.
Both types of stalkers can be extremely dangerous to a victim.
The Crime of Stalking
Under Missouri law, the crime of stalking is committed when a person purposely and repeatedly harassed or follows with the intent of harassing another person. "Harasses" is defined as engaging in "a course of conduct directed at a specific person that serves no legitimate purpose, that would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and that actually causes substantial emotional distress to that person." A "course of conduct" is defined as "a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time, however short, evidencing a continuity of purpose."
Stalking is normally a class A misdemeanor, carrying a range of punishment from one day to one year in the county jail, plus a fine of up to $1,000.00. Stalking can be a felony, however, if in the course of the harassment the suspect makes a "credible threat" to the victim. A "credible threat" is defined as "a threat made with the intent to cause the person who is the target of the threat to reasonably fear for his or her safety. The threat must be against the life of, or a threat to cause physical injury to, a person." Under these circumstances, the stalking amounts to the class D felony of "aggravated stalking" and carries a punishment of up to five years in prison. Stalking can also be a felony for a second or subsequent conviction.
What Can the Victim Do?
A stalking victim can take several steps to try to protect herself.
1. Order of Protection. A stalking victim can apply to a judge for an order of protection under Section 455.020, which will order the stalking to stay away from her. These orders were previously limited to domestic violence situations, but now also apply to stalkings being committed by complete strangers. The big advantage to getting an order of protection is that when a person violates by following the victim, or coming near her home or place of work, or otherwise harasses her, the police can arrest him immediately for violating the order of protection.
2. Criminal Charges. A stalking victim can report the offense to the local police department or sheriff’s department. The police agency can investigate the matter and forward their reports to the prosecutor for the filing of criminal charges. In addition to the crime of stalking, a person may have committed the crime of harassment by sending written communications or by making telephone calls. He may have committed invasion of privacy by filming, photographing or viewing the victim in a state of nudity. He may also have violated a previously-issued order of protection.
3. Mental Health Commitments. Missouri law allows the local mental health officials to involuntarily commit for temporary and emergency mental health treatment any individual who can be shown to present a danger to himself or others as a result of mental illness. A stalking victim might consider having the County Mental Health Coordinator investigate and interview her stalker to see if an involuntary commitment is a possibility.
4. Physical Protection. No one, not even the police, can guarantee the complete safety of a victim who is being stalked. Sadly, orders of protection can just be worthless pieces of paper when a stalker is determined to harm his victim. All stalking victims should consider increased residential security measures, such as better locks, burglar alarm systems, and exterior lighting around the home. Measures should be taken to make sure all police officers patrolling the neighborhood are aware of the situation and have a description of the stalker and his vehicles. Victims should also consider changing addresses, phone numbers and usual patterns of activity. Trusted neighbors should be informed of the situation, and should be given a detailed description of the stalker. The victim should keep a journal of the times the stalker has done anything to her, to help with later courtroom testimony. The victim should take measures to increase the safety of her vehicle, by installing an alarm system, by always parking in lighted areas, by always locking the vehicle whenever entering or leaving it, by carrying a mobile telephone at all times, and by driving directly to a police station if being followed. A victim should also take care to make her place of work safer by informing her supervisor and other employees of the situation, by giving them all a description of the stalker, and by having office keys and locks inventoried and replaced, if necessary. Unfortunately, protecting herself from a stalker may involve changing the way the victim lives. The alternative, however, can be worse.
The Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office takes the crime of stalking very seriously and will do all in its power to help protect the safety of a stalking victim.
* STALKING CRIMINAL STATUTE
* STALKING ORDERS OF PROTECTION STATUTE
* HARASSMENT CRIMINAL STATUTE